State television’s coverage of the current presidential campaign, in which it has given far more airtime to the president than his rivals, violates the law and undermines the fairness of the elections, says Poland’s commission for human rights.

“The public broadcaster is not complying with its statutory principle of pluralism, impartiality, balance and independence in presenting the election campaign,” says commissioner Adam Bodnar.

He notes that, according to information published by state broadcaster TVP itself, it has devoted by far the most airtime to the election committee of incumbent Andrzej Duda, who is supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. In February, each candidate’s committee received:

  • Andrzej Duda: 1 hour 35 minutes
  • Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska (Civic Platform, the largest opposition party): 30 minutes, 33 seconds
  • Krzysztof Bosak (far-right Confederation): 19 minutes, 47 seconds
  • Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz (agrarian Polish People’s Party): 15 minutes, 22 seconds
  • Szymon Hołownia (independent): 5 minutes 37 seconds
  • Robert Biedroń (The Left): 44 seconds

Bodnar also noted that, in addition to designated campaign airtime, Duda and his chancellery have received a large amount of further coverage during the campaign. In March this amounted to over 22 hours on the state news channel, TVP Info.

This lack of balance is a “violation of the electoral code”, says Bodnar. It is even more dangerous in current conditions, he notes, because the coronavirus lockdown has prevented public gatherings and restricted movement. This has made in-person forms of campaigning impossible.

In March, an opposition-nominated member of National Media Council (RMN), which oversee public media, called on the broadcasting regular to take action against public media’s biased coverage. They have become “part of the propaganda machine of Andrzej Duda, thus threatening democratic procedures,” wrote Juliusz Braun.

Earlier this year, Duda signed controversial legislation that granted public media an additional 2 billion zloty funding for 2020. Critics argued that he and the government were effectively using public money to support his own reelection bid. PiS argued that public media perform a vital social function and would struggle financially without the funding boost.

Under the current government, public media have not only provided disproportionate airtime to the ruling camp, but have also presented coverage, especially in news reports, that praises PiS and promotes its narrative while criticising the party’s opponents.

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Following last year’s parliamentary elections, observers from the OSCE warned that “a lack of impartiality in the media, especially the public broadcaster…undermined voters ability to make an informed choice…[and] amplified the advantage of the ruling party”.

This year’s World Press Freedom Index, published two weeks ago, saw Poland fall to its lowest ever position. Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the ranking, noted that the public media in Poland have been “transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces”.

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Poland’s Broadcasting Law requires public media, which are owned and funded by the state, to be “pluralistic, impartial, balanced and independent” in their coverage.

Yet PiS and its supporters argue that public media have always been under the influence of whichever party is in power. Moreover, they claim that Poland’s private media overwhelmingly favour the current opposition, and that therefore, by presenting the government’s position, public broadcasters provide balance.

Bodnar, who was appointed as human rights commission in 2015 under the previous government, has often come into conflict with PiS, who claim that his criticism is politically motivated. Last year, the head of the prime minister’s chancellery, Michał Dworczyk, said that Bodnar was part of a “political struggle” against the ruling camp.

In 2018, Bodnar won the Rafto Prize, Norway’s top human rights award. The committee praised his “crucial role in safeguarding human rights in Poland”, including “defending democracy, judicial independence and minorities…in the face of current political developments”.

Main image credit: Eliza Radzikowska-Białobrzewska/KPRP (under public domain)

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